A version of this post was originally published by Parenting Translator. Sign up for the newsletter and follow Parenting Translator on Instagram.
“Redshirting” or choosing to delay kindergarten for a year is a popular topic for parents of young children at this time of year. Increased awareness of redshirting may have roots in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, published in 2008. In the book, Gladwell points to data on the birthdays of Canadian Hockey League players to argue that being relatively older than peers provides an advantage, and he extends this argument to children’s success in school.
At the same time that ideas from Outliers have circulated, kindergarten has become increasingly academic and rigorous. For parents of children born near the kindergarten cutoff date, the pressure to redshirt feels intense. My oldest child has a late August birthday, which is right around the cutoff date for her school. However, it seemed like all of the children with summer birthdays (and even April/May birthdays) were waiting an additional year to start kindergarten. Granted, she would have entered kindergarten in 2020, and the possibility of remote learning caused many parents to delay school entry that year. Yet in talking to school administrators and teachers and other parents about this decision, the message I heard over and over again was that the choice was obvious. It seemed that everyone I talked to had wholeheartedly accepted that delaying kindergarten was the best choice for all children.
The research on redshirting
So does research actually find that redshirting will provide an academic and/or social advantage for children? The answer may be more complicated than you think.
Research on redshirting suggests that it is associated with a small academic advantage (that is, higher academic test scores), and test scores seem to increase at a greater rate in first and second grade However, this effect may begin to fade as early as the end of first grade. This research is all correlational, meaning we do not know whether it is redshirting that causes these advantages or if it is simply associated with advantages. The parents that choose to redshirt their children are often different from the parents who do not — most notably they are often the families that can afford to make this choice.
Some research studies eliminate the problem of parent choice by looking at the impact of age for children within the same grade, such as comparing students with summer birthdays to students in the same grade with fall birthdays. Research finds that students who are relatively older than other children in their grade score higher on math and science tests and, although these differences decrease over the years, they are still present to some extent in eighth grade. Other research finds that children who are relatively older show less hyperactivity and inattention and greater educational attainment (translation: getting farther in school). However, the impact on educational attainment is greatly reduced when schools do not engage in early tracking (translation: sending children to different schools based on academic abilities in elementary school). Research also shows that children who are older than their classmates are more likely to be in gifted education and less likely to be in special education. These positive impacts seem to extend to high school and beyond. Children who are older than their classmates are also less likely to drop out of high school, less likely to commit a felony, and less likely to experience a teenage pregnancy. Children that are older than their classmates are also more likely to attend a four-year college than younger students.
Yet, it is important to note that this line of research only involves associations. Further research is needed in order to conclude that redshirting actually causes any of these positive outcomes.
When might parents want to avoid redshirting?
Are there any situations in which parents might want to avoid redshirting? Research suggests that when your child has an identified disability, a suspected disability or even if you are just concerned that they may need some extra help in school, delaying school entry may be associated with worse academic performance, because it would delay access to free essential services through the public school system, such as speech therapy and learning support. This short delay may have a big impact as research finds that services before age 5 are more effective in improving a child’s long-term outcome than services after age 5. Research also finds a negative impact of redshirting for children with more severe ADHD and no impact for children with learning disabilities.
Is redshirting more important for boys than girls?
In any discussion of redshirting, it is commonly assumed that boys in particular benefit from redshirting. Is there any research to back this up? Research does find that girls are more likely to be behaviorally ready for kindergarten than boys. Research also suggests that boys may not do as well as girls with having higher-achieving classmates. Not surprisingly, boys are more likely to be redshirted than girls.
Does this research also apply to repeating a grade or holding children back?
Interestingly, outcomes for children who repeat a grade or are “held back” are very different from those who are redshirted.
One million students are held back each year in the United States. This practice particularly impacts ethnic minorities, with retention rates of 2.7% for Black students and 1.9% for Hispanic students, compared to 1.7% for white students.
A large body of research has indicated that holding a child back in school is associated with poorer academic outcomes and little social-emotional benefit. While some studies have found short-term social and academic benefits of grade retention, many of these effects fade after a few years.
Grade retention is also associated with an increased likelihood of dropping out of high school and a decreased likelihood of finishing college. Retained students are also more likely to be aggressive in adolescence. Grade retention after third grade seems to have a more detrimental effect, perhaps because it has a greater impact on self-esteem as children get older.
As with the research on redshirting, these studies only found associations between grade retention and these negative impacts, not causation. Regardless, it is important to discuss this research with redshirting because some parents assume that they can push their child ahead to kindergarten and then repeat a later grade if they are struggling. Yet, research suggests that the cons of this approach may outweigh any potential pros. In addition, redshirting reduces the risk for grade retention, suggesting that this may be another benefit for redshirting.
Based on this research, most clinicians and educators advise parents to avoid holding children back in a grade unless there is no other option. If your child’s school is pushing for it, present them with the research and see if you can discuss other possible options.
But is it fair?
For most families, delaying kindergarten means paying for full-time child care or delaying a stay-at-home parent from re-entering the workforce for an additional year. This is simply not an option for most families. Redshirting as a practice may also increase the ever-widening gap between students from high-income and low-income families, as only high-income families may be able to afford this option when wanting to give their child an advantage. Yet there is also research showing that having older classmates may actually improve the performance of younger classmates, suggesting that the practice of redshirting is at least not harmful to students who do not make this choice.
How do you know whether your child is ready for kindergarten?
The following may help you to decide whether your child is actually ready for kindergarten:
- Consider not only their academic skills but also their social-emotional and self-regulation skills. Social skills when entering kindergarten have been found to be related to success as an adult, including the likelihood of graduating college and gaining employment. More advanced self-regulation skills allow children to “catch up” even if they start behind their peers academically. Self-regulation is also associated with improved academic performance .
- Consult with your child’s preschool teacher or director if possible. Your child’s teacher should have a good idea of how their skills compare to their peers and whether they have the classroom engagement skills necessary for kindergarten.
- Speak with your child’s pediatrician. Your child’s pediatrician can give you their expert opinion as to whether your child is developmentally and physically ready for kindergarten.
- Visit both possible classroom settings. Gain a better understanding of the expectations that will be placed on your child in kindergarten versus the expectations in preschool. Try to determine which setting best fits your child’s current ability level.
Delaying kindergarten for a year may provide a small advantage to children. However, if you suspect your child has special needs or a disability, you may want to avoid redshirting and start school as soon as possible to get them the services they need. Once students enter K-12 schooling, parents may want to avoid holding their children back since the negative impacts may outweigh the positive. Parents may also want to consider that redshirting could increase the ever-widening gap between low-income and high-income children.
Most importantly, parents should consider their own individual child in this decision. Does your child seem to gravitate more to younger or older children? Does your child tend to compare themselves to their peers and get upset when they fall behind? Does your child seem to benefit from older role models around or do they seem to benefit from serving in a “leader” role for younger children?
Parents may also want to consider the school environment. Is the school more academic or play-based? Do they require children to sit for longer periods of time or are there movement breaks? Is redshirting typical for children around the cutoff date in this school system? Does the school compare children to others or use a tracking system for gifted education?
Sometimes this choice does not involve any of the academic advantages discussed above. In August, I will give birth to my third child with a summer birthday and currently I am planning to redshirt all three of these children (a choice I feel very privileged to have). What is really driving my decision is not the academic benefits but the opportunity to have another year with my children in my home. Whatever choice parents make they should feel confident in doing what feels right for their individual child and family.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of three and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.